Thou Shalt Not Pee

Yates trial judge makes a captive audience of the media

Reporters covering the gruesome and depressing Andrea Yates trial might decide they need an extra cup of coffee or two to get through the day. They better think twice.

Once they sit down in the courtroom, there's no getting out -- no bathroom breaks, no leaving to update editors, no nothing.

State District Judge Belinda Hill has issued a set of rules for the media that severely restrict what they can do; more troubling for reporters with passes to the trial is that the court is having difficulties getting its act together to enforce them.

Testimony begins each day at 10:30 a.m., for instance; the rules state, "Members of the media will be allowed in the courtroom at 10:20 a.m. Please do not loiter on the fifth floor before access to the courtroom is granted."

That means staying off the fifth floor until 10:20 a.m., right? Not necessarily. One reporter who did so was snapped at by a deputy who barked: "You're late!" When this was mentioned to court coordinator Janet Warner, she allowed as to how kinks were still being worked out. Writers who followed court directives exactly for Yates's earlier competency hearings were locked out entirely, with officials telling them the time for entry had passed.

Hill, who's a generally respected judge, is a strict constructionist when it comes to the No Beeper Rule. Those whose pagers or cell phones go off lose the devices to a bailiff, and then have to beg the court to get them back.

One network news producer fell victim to the rule when, unaware that at some point in the past she had set up her device to receive weather warnings, heard it go off to inform her that there was now a small-craft advisory for the Gulf.

Hill also made a strange deal before the trial with CBS's 48 Hours program, according to The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. He reported February 25 that Hill agreed to give the show special access to interview participants -- despite a gag order -- as long as nothing was aired until after the trial.

The network was planning a segment "that will focus on the mental health system that failed Andrea," according to a letter written by a 48 Hours producer to the lawyer for Yates's husband, Kurtz said.

The letter noted that the judge agreed to the request after the show "had a lawyer friend of Hill's present her with the CBS proposal," Kurtz said.

After objections from lawyers from NBC and ABC -- including local affiliate KTRK -- Hill changed her mind.

Bad, Nationwide

About the last thing Houston Chronicle columnist Leon Hale generates is controversy, but he begat a mini-spat with his February 28 column complaining that the Chron's copy desk had made some boneheaded changes in his copy.

His phrase "waked up" had been changed to "woken up," he wrote; a line saying he loved "the music" of rain on a tin roof was changed to "the beat" of rain on a tin roof. He didn't know of the "fixes" until they saw print.

Our first reaction was: For over 40 years, Hale's been turning out distinctively written columns; they don't run any changes by him?

A debate over Hale's column sprang up on a nationally read journalism Web site.

"So this columnist Leon Hale…complains when an editor edits? Puleeeez," said one writer to Jim Romanesko's Media News site. "Seems to me that Mr. Hale is spending far too much time in the community of Winedale, er, Whinedale, about which he wrote -- flawlessly, no doubt, according to him."

Another wrote about Hale's "silly charge that a word active in the English language over 350 years ["woken"] sounds ignorant to him. He makes this charge twice. Stunning. Three cheers for the copy editor."

Hale got equal amounts of support: "You support the [copy] desk taking his Texas column voice away just to get the grammar just so," one wrote in response. "Boy, I'm glad you weren't editing Royko when he wrote about Slats Grobnik…Whether Leon should have taken these beefs to readers is another issue, but his complaints are dead-on."

"Does the stylebook really decree that people can't hear music in the sound of rain on a tin roof? How sad if it does," wrote a fellow columnist. "More likely, it's a case of a writer with a tin roof and an editor with a tin ear."

(Editor's note: Hale took it all back in his Sunday, March 3, column, apparently blaming his computer. He said the copy desk chief ["one of the best editors I ever worked with," Hale noted] told him editors did not make the changes Hale claimed they did. "In computerized journalism there are various ways words can get changed…[P]robably I shouldn't have sounded off about it," Hale wrote.)

Sour Grapes

It's a news item that's garnered surprisingly little attention here in Houston, at least compared to the Second Coming, but a few years ago the NFL awarded our city an expansion franchise.

In truth, members of the local media, especially the Houston Chronicle, have been aggressively following events, especially as they concern the flawless perfection of Texans owner Bob McNair. If there has been any criticism of McNair in the Chron, it has been limited to the man's stubborn unwillingness to blow his own horn.

Maybe it's that incisive coverage that got us the team in the first place, if some recent carping from the West Coast is any indication.

The city of Los Angeles was competing with Houston for the expansion franchise back in 1999, and now there are rumblings that the San Diego Chargers may move up the coast to L.A.

Here's how Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers analyzed developments February 27: "The L.A. Chargers? Only if We Have the Write Stuff," read his column's headline.

He predicts the Chargers will try to move for the 2004 season. "That presents a dilemma," he writes. "They will try -- but should we help? When the NFL awarded Houston an expansion franchise because it met the NFL's extortion demand of $700 million and public money for a stadium, league leaders blamed the Times for hurting L.A.'s effort to get a team, while congratulating the cheerleaders at the Houston Chronicle for championing their city's cause."

By e-mail, Simers said NFL officials regularly touted the Chron's happy-talk reporting to L.A. boosters. "It was mentioned often to the politicians and people working here for football, who then used it on us in a leverage attempt to get better coverage," Simers said.

Simers's column noted that when the Seattle Seahawks were making noises about moving to L.A., then-owner Ken Behring "expressed great dismay when the L.A. media failed to greet him with puff pieces."

We guess he should have tried Houston. Dude would've been walking on water by now, if he just agreed to blow his own horn a bit.

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